Safety, cost driving new technology for removing rigs


HOUSTON — The recent push to dismantle abandoned oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico has created a $2.5-billion market for companies that supply the heavy lift boats and other salvage or demolition equipment.

And with the sharp rise in the number of removals is a new focus on safety and cost.

Don Stelling, president of Chevron Environmental Management Co., told an Offshore Technology Conference audience Wednesday that new tools have allowed the company to minimize the risk of decommissioning old offshore platforms while saving money.

The company, for example, partnered with Houston-based Versabar to create the Claw, a 10-story high floating platform that can lift a 10,000-ton topside off the seafloor. The equipment, by lifting larger pieces, significantly reduces the amount of time divers spend in water during salvage operations, Stelling said.

“The goal wasn’t to be cheaper, but to be safer,” he said. “But we found it saved us money because we minimized the lifts. With the old way, we would cut up piece after piece.”

Chevron also is employing automated vehicles to produced clearer pictures of submerged structures before sending divers into the water. And the company is using hydraulic shears to cut metal without needing divers or explosives.

Alan Stokes, global decommissioning manager for Worley Parsons, said companies don’t need heavy lifting equipment to reduce costs. In the future, operators should consider decommissioning when designing platforms. Also, standardized designs can reduce removal costs by 10 percent.

“Cost reduction is constrained by the initial design,” he said.

Oil and gas companies and regulators began to look closely at idle wells and platforms in 2002, and the focus intensified after a string of hurricanes swept the Gulf starting in 2004. The powerful storms toppled several platforms, and the industry realized that it costs significantly more to plug a well without a platform than one still easily accessible.

Federal rules require oil and gas companies operating in the Gulf to remove platforms that have not been used for at least five years and are no longer considered profitable. With some 250 removals a year, the rate of retirements is exceeding new installations in the Gulf, officials said.

This week, a top Obama administration official said that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will propose new regulations for decommissioning aging offshore equipment in the coming months.

Jon Khachaturian, president of Versabar, said new rules should allow idled rigs to remain in even deeper waters as artificial reefs.

Khachaturian also said federal regulators should soften the rule that requires companies to sever bottom-founded objects and their components at least 15 feet below the sea floor for removal. If the requirement was reduced to 5 feet, it would save weeks of underwater cutting by divers and thus reduce risk, he said.




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